Thursday, January 31, 2008

Miss Austen Regrets

Coming to PBS this Sunday is a production entitled Miss Austen Regrets, starring Olivia Williams as Jane Austen. Those of you familiar with some of the earlier Austen productions will remember her as Jane Fairfax in the 1996 production of Emma made for television and starring Kate Beckinsale. Those of you unfamiliar with that production may recognize her as Bruce Willis's wife in The Sixth Sense; oh — and you can see the 1996 version of Emma on March 23, 2008.

I'm very interested to see what they do with this production, which primarily focuses on the end of Jane Austen's life. Jane died in 1817 at the age of 41, most likely from a condition known as Addison's disease, which is, if I understand it correctly, a form of tuberculosis that affects the kidneys. Jane had never married, although not because of a lack of suitors; she received at least one marriage proposal, which she accepted, only to rescind her acceptance the next day.

The film is largely derived from Jane's correspondence with her niece, Fanny, who was at that time entering the "marriage market", as well as other correspondence between Jane and her sister, Cassandra, as well as from biographical information and surmise. I'm keen on seeing what percentage of surmise there is before I decide whether I think this production is justified or not.

In the meantime, I'm off to work on my own Jane Project, which is, for those who might not know, essentially a biography of Jane Austen told in verse using period forms. I'm still wrestling with the last six lines of a particular sonnet that has now occupied me for about two weeks. But to quote Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 P&P (coming back to PBS in February for a three-week run): I shall conquer this. I shall!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Among School Children - poetry on a Tuesday

Imagine that you're a sixty year-old Irish poet walking through a school in County Waterford back in 1926, because you happen to also be a member of a committee addressing schools. As you walk through, you'd carry with you your sixty years of life experience and education, including your training in the classics, such as the theories of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras. You'd also bring with you your recollection of school days, and might wonder if any of the girls in class resemble the woman you consider your soul-mate, believing as you do in a Platonic reality where every soul is split in two and housed in separate bodies, but which, when reunited, creates a sublime single entity. You might ponder the state of education. What the school (and teacher) looks like. Comparing your sixty year-old self to the young children there, you might think about how you were once a child, and that might make you think of your mother: was your life worth the pain of your birth? You might wonder whether there is meaning to life, after all, as you stand there at age sixty, looking at the exuberance of youth surrounding you.

And if you it truly were you, you'd be William Butler Yeats. And you would then go on to write a gorgeous poem about it. Of course, you'd use your own personal mythological associations, like references to Leda (once impregnated by Zeus, who took the form of a swan) as a stand-in for the woman you love. And in the end, you'd have an answer, contained in the following poem:


Among School Children
by William Butler Yeats

The poem consists of eight stanzas, each containing eight lines, each written in iambic pentameter and with an end-rhyme scheme (per stanza) of ABABABCC, which is known as ottava rima.

I

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading - books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way - the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


This first stanza is the set-up: where he is, what starts him musing.

II

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

III

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age -
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage -
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.


Yeats is thinking of Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary whom he loved for years, most of which was unrequited. (She was, from Yeats's perspective, his muse, and to borrow from a song title, a beautiful disaster.) He recalls her telling him some story of a childhood tragedy (real or imagined), and how he knew her to be his soulmate ("two natures blent/into a sphere from youthful sympathy/. . .the yolk and white of the one shell"). He spies a young girl who reminds him of Gonne by virtue of skin tone or hair color, and successfully evokes an image of Gonne as a child.

IV

Her present image floats into the mind -
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once - enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.


Yeats pictures Gonne as she is now, an old woman. "Quattrocento" is a reference to the Renaissance painters of the 1400s. He compares Gonne to a gaunt statue who has subsisted on air and shadows, and then compares himself to an old scarecrow.

V

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?


If you've been tapping out the lines of this poem, you might notice that this one skews a bit by adding an extra syllable here or there. To stay strictly iambic, the first line should be "What youthful mother, shape upon her lap", but Yeats opted to select sense over form and added an article to indicate that he's referring to some thing on her lap (in this case, a child, which was formed by the "honey of generation" — I'll bet they don't teach that term in health class — and his use of the word "betrayed" there is, I think, really strong. Who's betrayed? The woman? The child? It seems to me that he sees the bearing of children as an oppression, and that it's the mother who's been betrayed into bearing the child, but I think it could be open to discussion. Further line skewage (is that a word?) is the result of him inserting masculing articles in to be clear that he's speaking of a specific sixty year old, and not in general terms.

Moving on with this stanza, and skipping all the stuff about the kid, what it asks is "What young mother, if she could see her son at age sixty, would think that she'd been well-compensated for the pains of his birth and her concern for him as a child?"


VI

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.


Yeats looks to Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras for answers and concludes that although their teachings continue to exist, they were nothing but old scarecrows themselves. Anyone else hearing Eliot's lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in their head right about now? ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . /I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.")

VII

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts - O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise -
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;


Nuns worship marble and bronze images; mothers worship their children. Both have their hearts broken in the end: mothers by their children, and others by art, which mocks man by remaining changeless throughout time.

VIII

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?



The last two lines of this poem are the most-often quoted part: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

The "dance" to which Yeats refers is defined earlier in the final stanza. It occurs when there's a sort of unity between body and spirit where neither is dominant. Use of the word "Labour" at the start of the stanza refers all the way back to the start of the poem and the work of the school children, but he's saying that work that is worthwhile transcends separation into parts (self or soul - a reference to at least another of his poems, "A Dialogue Between Self and Soul").

The final question about the dancer and the dance is, as you might guess, rhetorical. Because of this (and without meaning to be confusing), this question and the one preceding it are, in fact, the answers to questions posed by the poem. Just as a chestnut tree cannot be separated into parts (leaf, blossom or bole), the creator and its creation (chestnut tree and flower/leaf/bole, human dancer and dance) cannot be completely separated. You may not be what you eat, but I read him as meaning that you are part of whatever it is that you create - dance, art, writing.

Yeats's conclusion is Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, commonly rendered into English as "life is short, but art is long."

So: What have you created today?

My answer? This blog post. And another 12 failed lines for the final 6 lines of the sonnet I spoke of when talking about poetry and ninjas last week.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Quoteskimming

Another Sunday, another batch of quotes for you. With related open letters, because I felt like mixing it up a bit today.

First, one about books and readers that caught my eye in this article in today's New York Times*. Usually I like what Mr. Jobs has to say about advances in technology, but this bit in an article about Amazon's wireless reading device, the Kindle got my goat:

". . .when Mr. Jobs was asked two weeks ago at the Macworld Expo what he thought of the Kindle, he heaped scorn on the book industry. 'It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,' he said. 'Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.'

To Mr. Jobs, this statistic dooms everyone in the book business to inevitable failure."


Dear Mr. Jobs: Those of us who do read more than one book a year read a lot of books. Last year was a slow year for me owing to all the research I did, and I still read over 100 books. And book readers are still in the majority. Please send my goat back.

On first drafts
From an article by Bonita Pate Davis in the November/December 2007 SCBWI Bulletin:

"First drafts attempt to capture coalescing ideas into a semblance of order. They barely rise one step above the primordial soup. Still, no matter how rough, those first drafts come nearest to capturing the pure essence of ideas and feelings."


Dear Ms. Davis: I sure hope all the writers I know can find a copy of the Bulletin and read your article on page 16. Your thoughts are cogent, you make wonderful points about first drafts and your use of language is wonderful. Your reference to "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" and the Romantic poets just clinched this as a work of genius, in my opinion

On writing with integrity
In the same issue of the SCBWI Bulletin, Susan Salzman Raab interviewed last year's Newbery award-winner, Susan Patron. The question was "From your perspective as an author whose book has been challenged and as a former librarian who has defended other people's books, what would you recommend to authors who are afraid that a book they're writing may be controversial?" Here's an excerpt from Patron's answer:

As writers we choose each word with care so that it conveys our specific meaning, mood, emphasis, style, etc. And we write with respect for the reader's intelligence. We're doomed if we permit the specter of sensors or critics to enter our creative process. We must not let those crows of fear caw into our ears as we write, or we won't hear the genuine inner voice that we need to access in order to write honestly and well.


Dear Ms. Patron: Thank you. Thank you for your words, which all writers need to hear, and for your integrity, grace and humor. Thanks also for fighting back when the crows of censure/censorship came cawing over the innocent use of a correct anatomical term.

Next, this quote on poetry from Ted Hughes, which I discovered over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast the other day:

Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something — perhaps not much, just something — of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment, of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being — not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses — but a human being, we call it poetry.


Dear Jules and Eisha: Thanks for all the excellent posts you guys do, including reminding me about books I should read and books I have read.

Dear Ted Hughes: From what I understand, you weren't always a nice guy. But I really like what you said here about poetry and language. So thanks.


On memory, a quote from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, the ITV version of which will be appearing at 9 p.m. tonight on most PBS stations.

Tonight's version features Billie Piper as the "insipid" Fanny Price. Pictured with her from left to right are Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford, Joseph Morgan as William Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram. This movie features excellent performances by Beattie and his screen-sister, Mary Crawford, as played by Hayley Atwell, and by Maggie O'Neill as Mrs. Norris.

If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.


Dear Jane: Thank you for this book, which I happen to like, even if some members of your family did find Fanny to be a bit of a prig. There are a number of people who lead long-suffering lives, and the thought that all might turn out well for them is encouragin. I also like how the book can be read as allegory, with Fanny in a Job-like position, and various characters representing the 7 deadly sins: Lust (Maria Bertram), Gluttony (Tom Bertram), Greed (Mary Crawford), Sloth (Lady Bertram), Wrath (Sir Thomas Bertram), Envy (Rushworth), and Pride (Mary Crawford). At least that's how I'm assigning the roles today, although some of these folks do double-duty, and I've not assigned a particular sin to one of the most despicable characters in the book, Mrs. Norris, who seems to have Greed, Wrath, Envy and Pride in abundance. Also unassigned? Our "hero", Edmund Bertram, to whom I assign the sin of being annoyingly obtuse. But I digress, dear Lady, and I've gone on too long. I hope my friends will watch the latest cinematic adaptation of your fine book.

*You may need to sign up for a free account to read the NY Times online. I can't tell for sure because, well, I already have one.

Friday, January 25, 2008

When We Two Parted -- a Poetry Friday post

First the poem, then the discussion. Or really, if you have time, first the poem. Then a a few moments to think/grieve, and then the discussion. You'll understand that better in a moment, unless this is one you already know by heart.

When We Two Parted
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.

The dew of the morning
Sank chill on my brow—
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well:—
Long, long shall I rue thee
Too deeply to tell.

In secret we met—
In silence I grieve
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.


Go on. Pause for a moment. I'll wait.

Let's get the technical stuff out of the way: four stanzas, eight lines each, with an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme (the third stanza can also be read as ABABACAC). There's no strict syllable count per line; instead there are two strongly-accented syllables per line (E.g., "WHEN we two PARTed" or "they KNOW not i KNEW thee").

The power of this poem comes from multiple sources. Part of it is the punch-iness of the lines with their two accented syllables each. They rock you along through the poem, and yet they sometimes pack a wallop as they go. Part of the poem's power is Byron's use of the first person. It lends credibility to the words of the poem, which is highly personal not just because of the use of first person, but also because of the grief, anger, despair and resentment in the words of the poem.

And a large part of this poem's power is that ends on a sadder note than it began. Contrary to common belief, time has not healed the speaker's wound. In the first stanza, he's been rejected by a lover; the lover went on to a life of infamy, and his knowledge that he was once associated with the lover is a constant source of shame; while the lover's name is bandied about (one infers with some derision), the speaker reassesses the level of his affection ("Why wert thou so dear?"), and it seems that he harbored feelings over the years; and then the final stanza, which is killer, as he reflects on their past trysts and his continued resentment over what he now views as a betrayal, and considers the possibility of meeting her again.

I should note that this poem is often read as meaning that a prior secret lover has made a public fool of him- or herself, and is now being gossiped about in society. Friends discuss it openly in front of the speaker, not knowing of his past relationship, and it reopens all the wounds of the original separation. I should also note that I read this poem slightly differently, based on all the verbal cues that have to do with death, as meaning that the ex-lover is now dead, and is nevertheless the object of society's ridicule as a result of a misspent life, and that the far-distant future meeting is in the afterlife. It's supportable on the face of the poem, but isn't, I believe, the traditional take on it. And that's the beauty of poems— they are subject to individual interpretation.

If you're interested in more about Byron's biography, you can get some of the dirt in a prior post of mine. He was actually quite a scandalous figure in his day, and in honesty, this poem could as easily have been written about him as by him.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Little Hoot by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Jen Corace

I generally listen to the opinion of booksellers, and so I was pleased to take one of my favorite booksellers up on her recommendation that I read Little Hoot by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace.

Little Hoot is a young owl from a conventional owl family. He attends school, of course, so he knows what other youngsters are up to. And he knows that they all go to bed at a reasonable time.

Why can't he go to bed at a reasonable time, too?

But no, Mom and Dad both insist that he stay up just one . . . more . . . hour.



You simply must read this book. MUST, do you hear me? Because the dialogue and the story and the illustrations are all pitch-perfect. The parents sound like parents, Little Hoot and friends play like real kids, and the pictures are so cute that you really, really want to squish the little owl in a squishy, huggy way.

I'd say more, but I see that Betsey Bird at Fuse #8 has already done so, so I say - Go. Read her review. And then, read the book.

Monday, January 21, 2008

We Are The Ship by Kadir Nelson

Ever since I read Moses and Henry's Freedom Box, I've been excited about Kadir Nelson's artwork. And ever since I attended the SCBWI conference in LA, I've been looking forward to getting my hands on Kadir Nelson's first solo book project, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, ("words and paintings by Kadir Nelson"). The book takes its title from the motto of the Negro National League, taken from a quote from Rube Foster, the League's founder: "We are the ship; all else the sea."



From the cover art to the rich brown endpapers to the forward by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to Nelson's folksy narration of the text to the glorious paintings inside the book (including one amazing double fold-out spread showing the complete lineup for the first Colored World Series), to the author's note to the bibliography to the index, this book is a gem. Nelson organized the book into nine innings. The only thing this book is lacking is (and I hate to be picky, but here it is): a Table of Contents.
Just so you get an idea how the book is organized and what the scope is, here's what the Table of Contents would look like:

Foreword by Hank Aaron
p. 1 1st inning: Beginnings
p. 17 2nd inning: A Different Brand of Baseball: Negro League Game Play
p. 23 3rd inning: Life in the Negro Leagues
p. 31 4th inning: Racket Ball: Negro League Owners
p. 41 5th inning: The Greatest Baseball Players in the World: Negro League All-Stars
p. 53 6th inning: Latin America: Baseball in Paradise
p. 57 7th inning: Good Exhibition: The Negro Leagues vs. the White Leagues
p. 63 8th inning: Wartime Heroes: World War II and the Negro League All-Star Game
p. 69 9th inning: Then Came Jackie Robinson
p. 77 Extra innings: The End of the Negro Leagues
p. 79 Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues
p. 79 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame
p. 80 Author's Note
p. 81 Acknowledgements
p. 82 Bibliography & Filmography
p. 83 Endnotes
p. 86 Index


This book is a must-have for (1) all libraries, (2) all baseball fans, (3) folks interested in the development of the Civil Rights movement and (4) all Kadir Nelson fans. That's a lot of categories, but it's true.

We Are The Ship explains what the Negro Leagues were, and what it felt like to be a part of them, including being the brunt of name-calling and being subjected to the thousand cuts of segregation (not all of them being small cuts, by the way). The narrator's matter-of-fact tone and folksy stories is a pleasant companion throughout the text. He tells how the business of the leagues was conducted is examined. He talks about the heroes of the league (many of them in the 5th inning, which features breathtaking pictures). Throughout, the narrator's voice sounds very much like an old Negro League player talking about people he actually knew, good points, bad points, and all.



As I alluded to earlier, Nelson really payed attention to the details, and a reader of this book will not only learn facts, but will, to an extent, "feel" what it was like to be a player in the Negro Leagues (both the good and bad aspects), in the same way that Russell Freedman's marvelous "The Voice that Challenged a Nation" brought home what segregation and racism felt like for Marian Anderson (at least in part).

If you'd like a look inside the book, Kadir Nelson offers one on his site (it's where I took these images from). But if you're a librarian or a baseball fan or someone who, like me, has a bit of a crush on Kadir Nelson, then you need to BUY THIS BOOK. Now. Before it wins awards next year. Because it's going to win them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Quoteskimming

On what writing is

"I always thought writing was arraying words in beautiful patterns, but now I think it's more like walking blindfolded, listening with your whole heart, and then looking backward to see if you made any tracks worth keeping." Sara Lewis Holmes in her recent Poetry Friday post at Read Write Believe.

On why fiction/fantasy matter

Ten days ago, I put up a post entitled "Why We Need Fiction", about which I remain pleased. One of my rationales for why fiction is important reads as follows: "We need fiction because it allows us to create an artificial barrier, behind which we can examine Big Important Issues in a hypothetical setting, instead of beating people's brains out, possibly literally, by addressing those issues in the real world."

I've started reading my copy of The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, and it appears that Lloyd Alexander agreed with me in part:

"Q: Why do you write fantasy?
A:
Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. It has the same emotional power as a dream."


On poetry

Here, the first seven lines of a fourteen-line poem by James Kirkup called "The Poet":

Each instant of his life, a task, he never rests,
And works most when he appears to be doing nothing.
The least of it is putting down in words
What usually remains unwritten and unspoken,
And would so often be much better left
Unsaid, for it is really the unspeakable
That he must try to give an ordinary tongue to.


And from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which airs tonight at 9 p.m. on most PBS stations, the novel of which I reviewed last July. Here is a portion of the text taken from a description of the developing friendship between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe. This section is often referred to as Austen's "defence of the novel", and is found in Volume I, chapter 5 of the novel:

. . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; ——for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding ——joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader ——I seldom look into novels ——Do not imagine that I often read novels ——It is really very well for a novel." ——Such is the common cant. —— "And what are you reading, Miss ——————?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ——"It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

Seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. No?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Football Season — a poem

Just in time for the playoffs, my poem, "Football Season", was included on page three of the Winter issue of Penn & Ink.

It looks much cuter the way it's set up over at the Eastern PA SCBWI site, but here's the text:


Football Season

by Kelly Fineman

Uniform,

helmet,

shoulder pads,

cleats.

All the people

in their seats.

Huddle,

line up,

touchdown pass!

Football season's

here at last.

Friday, January 18, 2008

In the Bathtub of Possibilities - a Poetry Friday post

Back in November, I read a post over at Laurie Purdie Salas's blog in which she called for two poems for her (now) newly released title from Compass Point Books, Write Your Own Poetry by Laura Purdie Salas.

I submitted two poems, one for each of the categories that Laura needed, and was thrilled when my bathtub-related poem was chosen for inclusion. When I was at ALA last weekend, I got to see and hold a copy of the actual book over at the Compass Point booth. My poem is there on the right-hand page, near the very small rubber ducky.

Wanna know what the poem says? Since I'm sure at least one or two folks out there might, here it is:

In the Bathtub of Possibilities
by Kelly Fineman

I am:

    a landscaper
        clearing a lake amid bubble mountains

    an admiral
        directing battles between rubber ducks
        and drakes

    a mermaid
        my hair a floating halo
        or fishnet

    Now, Alice
        in a towel
          too big for the rabbit-hole drain


Thursday, January 17, 2008

I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder

Last night, I read Lisa's new YA novel, I Heart You, You Haunt Me.

Because it is a verse novel, it goes extremely quickly, which is bound to make this book a success with today's busy teens. (S, who grabbed it from me as soon as I was done, is taking honors classes in history and English, which means a whole crapload of reading all the time, so her recreational reading is way down. As in, she hasn't started Libba Bray's new book, even though she love-love-loves the first two, owing to time constraints. But a verse novel with all of its welcoming white space is something she feels "up to" right now.)

Before I say anything review-wise, I should point out that I've met Lisa in real life, not just on the interweb, and that I really, truly like her and consider her a friend. So, really, I was predisposed to want to like this book. But I can honestly say that I'd have liked it anyhow, even if I'd never heard of Lisa Schroeder, because the voice was great and the story was good. My knowing and liking Lisa already probably makes me like this book even more, but I'd have liked it anyway, if you see what I mean.

The main character, Ava, begins the book at the funeral of her boyfriend, Jackson. It takes a while until we figure out how Jackson died, but it's clear from the beginning that Ava blames herself for his death. Anything to do with what Jackson was like or how their relationship was is well-handled through flashbacks. And just as we sort out a bit about who he was and who they were together, we meet Jackson's spirit, who is keeping Ava company. Whether his company remains welcome is a separate issue, as is Jackson's reason for being there.

This book will make you think about first love and first loss and interconnectedness and grief and redemption without ever telling you what to think about any of it. And Ava's parents are the lovely, helpful sort of parents that all of us hope our children will see, although sometimes our kids don't see it the same way. As an adult reader, I really enjoyed that about it. As a teen reader, I can imagine being swoonily in love with this book and it's romantic story. For serious.

My favorite part? I'm not saying what it is, 'cause that would be all spoiler-ish and I'm not going there. And if you have the book but haven't yet read it, do not skip ahead. Seriously. But if you've read the book already, or after you read the book, tell me whether page 203 gave you goosebumps and made you cry, all at the same time. Because I sure did. Which isn't to say that the rest of the chapter-poems aren't good; just that page 203 is killer.

Brava, Lisa! I heart you and your book. Folks who don't yet own it may want to order a signed copy from Powell's. It's only $7.99 (plus shipping). And if you've got a teen girl around, this book will make a spectacular Valentine's Day present.

Monday, January 14, 2008

If a poem falls in the forest

Well, today has been a great day for poetry.

Let's look at the awards with our poet-goggles on, shall we?

The Belpre Award went to The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography in Poems of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarite Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls.

The Schneider Family Book Award went to Tracie Vaughn Zimmer's free-verse novel, Reaching for Sun.

Twelve Rounds to Glory by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by Bryan Collier, won a Coretta Scott King honor.

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, won a Theodore Seuss Geisel honor.

The Newbery went to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd and Tina Schart Hyman.

And a Printz honor went to Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.

The first-ever Odyssey award for best audiobook production went to Jazz by Walter Dean Myers.

Yes indeed, a great day for poetry.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Quoteskimming

Because it's Jane Austen season on PBS
In honor of tonight's U.S. television debut of the new ITV production of Jane Austen's Persuasion, here's one of the most popular quotes from the novel for you, in the context of its entire paragraph. Oh, and for the interested, I provided a very short and completely incomplete cheat sheet in the comments of Friday's Persuasion post. The quote (about learning romance) comes from early on in the book, when Anne Elliot is thinking about the choice she was persuaded to make when she was nineteen, which was to renounce Frederick Wentworth, the man she loved, for financial and other security reasons:

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been,——how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!——She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older——the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.

On revision

From the very wise and talented Jennifer Hubbard, with whom I spent so much time at ALA yesterday:

One byproduct of the revision process is doubt. . . . The inner critic helps identify trouble spots. The inner critic tries not to let me get away with crap. The inner critic keeps me working when I might get lazy. But sometimes, one must stuff a pillow in the inner critic's mouth and listen to the story.

On poetry

"All poems are journeys. The best poems take long journeys. I like poetry best that journeys——while remaining in the human scale——to the other world, which may be a place as easily overlooked as a bee's wing." ~Robert Bly

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Persuasion

On Sunday at 9 p.m. on most of your local PBS stations, you'll be able to watch a video production of the last novel completed by Jane Austen during her lifetime, Persuasion, starring the dishy Rupert Penry-Jones and the talented Sally Hawkins. Some of my favorite other roles in this production include Peter Wight as Admiral Croft (I've loved him since he played Eliza Bennet's uncle in the Keira Knightly P&P), Anthony Head as Sir Walter Eliot (he's such an excellent popinjay), and Joseph Mawle as Captain Harville.

Sunday, 9 p.m.
Be there, and be square.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls — a Poetry Friday post

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
  And the tide rises, the tide falls.


About the poem:

First, a word about form and composition.

This is an example of a rondeau, with a minor variation. A rondeau is a form taken from the French (hence the French name), and is a poem with 15 lines broken into 3 5-line stanzas. So far, so good. It takes the opening phrase of the poem, and uses it as a chorus of sorts, which appears as the final line of each stanza. Again, so far, so good (although many poets use only a portion of the first line, such as "The tide rises"). And usually, it only has two end rhymes. We’ll call the "chorus" line C, so a general rondeau has this format: aabbc aabbc aabbc (one of the best-known English poems using rondeau form is "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian war poet, John McCrae, which I posted during National Poetry Month last year. Here, Longfellow’s use of the complete first line makes the first stanza read aabba. But instead of adhering to the standard form, Longfellow uses different "B" couplets in the next two stanzas, so that the poem reads as aabba aacca aadda. Savvy?

Now, if you’re still with me, and you have a moment (and you’re someplace where you can do this without embarrassment), please humor me by reading at least one stanza out loud. The whole poem, if possible, but hey, I’ll take what you’re willing to give me.

While the poem is still in your mental ear, I want to talk once more about assonance and it’s friend, alliteration. Assonance is when neighboring words have the same (or similar) vowel sound, whereas alliteration involves repetition of consonants. Like Tennyson, Longfellow was a complete master of assonance and alliteration, and all those "round tones"* and repeated consonants evoke a particular mood (long vowels take longer to say than short ones, and so compel a slower reading pace), make memorization and recitation possible, and propel the poem along, song-like.

A final note about form: In each stanza, the second line ends in the word "calls." First, a curlew, which is type of wading bird; then the sea; and finally, the hostler (sometimes spelled "ostler", since the "h" is silent), which is the name of person responsible for the care of horses.

Now, a word about meaning.

The poem sets out a fairly simple story: In the first stanza, a traveller hastens along the shore toward the town. In the second, night falls and, with the tide, the traveller’s footprints are wiped away. And in the third stanza, dawn comes. Life continues (in the form of the horses and hostler), but the traveller never returns.

Symbolically, this poem is usually seen as talking about death, as represented by the darkness, the effacement of the traveller’s footsteps, and the traveller’s non-return. And yet, in the end, life goes on, as I’ve already noted. The tide continues as before. The hostler continues about his job. And the horses are ready to charge forward, in part indicated by Longfellow’s decision to use the word "steed" instead of "horse". A horse is a horse (of course, of course), but a steed is a horse that is ready for some serious action, a horse with spirit (hence all the stamping and neighing). (Also, steed, stamp and stall brings out that alliteration we were talking about earlier in a way that horse, paw, and stall would not have.) And the tide rises, the tide falls.

About the poet: Longfellow was one of the five Fireside Poets, so-called because they were extremely popular, and many of their poems were written for the purpose of recitation (by fireside or elsewhere). He was so popular that popular 20th-century wisdom held that he must not have been particularly gifted. On the one hand, looking at his poems and his use of conventional forms, with little in the way of daring and experimentation to move the forms forward or break new ground, one can see why his skill was considered less than some others of his era who broke new poetic ground.

Longfellow wrote quite a bit about America, and is one of the quintessential "American" authors. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow wrote about American themes and stories, including Native Americans ("The Song of Hiawatha"), American history and tradition, and in some cases, as in "The Landlord’s Tale: Paul Revere’s Ride", the creation and/or perpetuation of American myth.

On the other hand, looking at some of his poems, such as "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" and "The Cross of Snow", I say "balderdash". The man had a real gift for the type of poetry he wrote. And many of his poems stand the test of time, such as the one I’ve featured here today.

In closing

I love this poem for its sound and imagery. And my guess is that’s why the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation included it as one of the poems which is eligible to be memorized and recited in competition by high school kids as part of the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation program.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why we need fiction

Yesterday, I was having an email conversation with a friend who teaches English at a community college down south. She welcomed a bunch of kids to Intro to Literature, and decided to open her class by saying "So what is fiction?" and someone in the class answered "B.S.!" In her first email, though, all she said to me was that she had been "off befuddling students about 'Why we need fiction'"; the details about the B.S. came later. Wise woman that she is, she is hoping to convey that "'fact and fiction are different truths.' (As seen in Patricia MacLachlan's MG The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.)"

Smart-ass that I am, I decided to write her an essay. Which I at first intended to be flip, but in reality, I believe what I said pretty much 100%. And so I'm sharing it with you all today. Feel free to imagine me reading this aloud to a class full of kids who are taking Intro to Lit., who probably don't really care about being there.

"Why we need fiction", by Kelly Fineman

We need fiction because in fiction, things have to make sense, which is a nice change of pace from life, where things don't have to make sense all the time. Or sometimes ever.

We need fiction because it allows us to create an artificial barrier, behind which we can examine Big Important Issues in a hypothetical setting, instead of beating people's brains out, possibly literally, by addressing those issues in the real world.

We need fiction because there are places the mind can go that the body can't actually follow, like the past, or the future, or to a different world where different natural laws apply, and fiction is a way of taking us there, if only for a little while, and allowing us to imagine how things were, or could be.

We need fiction because sometimes, facts suck.

We need fiction because it is a form of exercise. It may not help us lose weight or get in shape (unless it is a Very Heavy Book, in which case it may build a bit of muscle tone), but it helps us exercise our minds. And not just our imaginations, which are not just allowed, but encouraged, to picture what the author has described for us: fiction allows us to exercise our understanding of other people and cultures; it can educate us in a meaningful way about places and people we may never see or meet in real life.

An example: if you read or watch the news, you may have some idea what illegal immigrants from Mexico go through to get here. You may have some idea about torture and wartime atrocities in other countries. What you've read may have influenced your opinions on issue like immigration policy and use of torture and involvement in "civil" disputes in other countries. However, if you're like me, you don't really know what those experiences feel like, and while you may bemoan the awfulness of a particular circumstance, you've given little thought to the long-term effects of them.

If, like me, you went out after the CYBILS finalists were announced to track down some of the titles I hadn't heard of before, you might have read the heartwrending/heartmending Red Glass by Laura Resau. If so, then you have "seen", first-hand, what people's lives in those circumstances are like, their hopes and dreams and fears and how they've overcome tremendous odds. You understand their motivations, and see the beauty of the human spirit. You have thought about the "real" issues, but in a far more experiential way than simply reading "the facts" in a news article or seeing footage on TV and then quickly moving on to the next topic. And with the power of its prose, this book, like many other great works of fiction, will stick with you for a while and knock around in your head, where the news is frequently here and then on to the next thing.

My conclusion? For learning about the emotional truths and truly grasping the factual truths and learning compassion and finding out what other cultures are truly like, you can't beat fiction.

And that's a fact.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Christopher Myers

Let me open this review by opining, although I've never met him, that Christopher Myers must have balls of steel. Only such an explanation is possible for his clever audacity in reimagining Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky"*, as being set in a concrete playground, where the battle involving a vorpal blade is rendered as a fierce, stylized game of one-on-one between mismatched ballers.

If you don't know of what I am speaking, check out the cover, which features "the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame":

For those of you who need a refresher in the Jabberwocky* text, I recommend you check out the text online. Longtime readers know I'm a Carroll fan, and that I've posted about nonsense words before.

Now, I should add that Christopher Myers has not monkeyed with Carroll's text, but has merely moved its venue. Check out this splendid spread, for instance, which shows part of the battle in the heart of the poem ("One, two! One, two! and through and through,/the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!/He left it dead, then with its head/he went galumphing back"):



But that is not to say that Christopher Myers didn't add some text to the book. Because at the end of the book, he added some text, which may be my very favorite part of the book, meaning absolutely no slight at all towards his poster-like, primary-based, primal pictures. (Zounds! Alliteration!) Myers added an endnote, which I only wish I could reprint in its entirety, in which he explains how he came to set the battle on a basketball court. He explains how he met with lots of members of the Lewis Carroll Society, and examined Charles Lutwide Dodgson's (aka Carroll's) original diaries, where he found the Mesoamerican word 'ollamalitzli' scribbled in the margins. (Those of you who've been to Chichen Itza know what ollamalitzli is — it's the field sport in which teams try to get a ball through a stone circle mounted high on the walls while preventing the other team from scoring; captain of the winning team gets decapitated to honor the gods.)

I loved this note for how well-written it was and how well-researched it sounded. And really, since Dodgson was involved with the folks who created the Oxford English Dictionary, it didn't seem to me to be beyond the pale that a word like ollamalitzli would appeal to him, had he ever heard it. But the fact is that he may not have. In fact, a wee bit of controversy about the endnote broke out in the New York Times, of all places, after the extremely talented J. Patrick Lewis reviewed the book, and discussed the endnote. Turns out that Myers was just joshing, in a smart-ass way that Carroll would have enjoyed.

The first response printed in the December 2, 2007 issue came from the communications director for the Lewis Carroll Society, who tersely stated that there was no such word in the margins, and then opined that pretending to know what the poem was "about" was naughty (more or less— you can judge for yourself by reading the response here). The LCS response is followed by a letter from Christopher Myers, who has won my undying adoration for the content of his letter, which I've quoted in its entirety below:

To the Editor:

In the author's note of my illustrated version of "Jabberwocky," I suggested that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was undoubtedly familiar with an Aztec ritual sport called ollamalitzli, a sort of proto-basketball. I wrote the author's note in a particularly nonsensical mood, in keeping with the spirit of whimsy found both in Carroll's original poem and in his varied and inconsistent explanations thereof. I thanked for their assistance several fictional members of fictional divisions of the Lewis Carroll Society, including the L.C.S.'s of Mogadishu, Kashmir and Bed-Stuy, again in the spirit of all things droll.

Since the publication of my version of "Jabberwocky" and the subsequent review and praise published by yourselves (thank you very much), a number of strange events have occurred. My neighbors on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn have reported a man in a top hat snooping around my building. Three men with sideburns and a woman with a parasol asked after me at my corner bodega. I suspect that these nefarious Victorians may be emissaries of the Lewis Carroll Society seeking to confront me. While I delight in Carrollian visions of fancy, I am dismayed by the darker side of Victorian life.

Surely the gracious, learned and well-humored members of the Lewis Carroll Society understand the spirit we all appreciate so much, which I have tried to embrace in the book. However, I wish to note, in the public eye, my suspicions regarding zealous Victorians in case some ghastly fate should befall me and I am found trussed up like something out of "The Mikado."

Many thanks to those who have appreciated the book.


Other reasons to love Christopher Myers, besides his illustrations for Jabberwocky and other books, such as the lovely Jazz, written by his father, Walter Dean Myers (who said in LA that he was forced to use Christopher as an illustrator because Walter was "sleeping with his (Chris's) mother") include this interview at Reading Rockets, which you can read or even watch online. My favorite part? "Reading is not like going to Hawaii", for reasons which will become obvious if you take a few minutes to read it.

All of this has been a rather large digression. Myers's illustrated version of Jabberwocky is decidedly a new spin on a poem which generations of kids have loved. His illustrations bring this poem to the attention of a new generation and/or make readers think about this poem in a different way, which is all fine by me. But it sure took some cojones to do it.

*Jabberwocky is from Carroll's second Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Quoteskimming

Gah! It's almost day's end, and in a sudden forehead-slapping moment I remembered that today was Sunday, and Sunday is quoteskimming day, and I hadn't yet done it. Never fear, however, I am squeaking under the limbo pole. Heck, I'm still able to make it without serious contortion.

About poets and other solitary writers

A word about the woman whose book of poems I'm still wending my way through, the lovely Miss Emily Dickinson, from an interesting source, TV character Lisa Simpson. Yes, from The Simpsons:

"Solitude never hurt anyone. Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known... then went crazy as a loon."

About first drafts

According to Bernard Malamud, a Jewish writer described as a sort of human version of Eeyore by Jay Cantor (the quote can be found in this article, although use of the name Eeyore is mine, and not Cantor's), a first draft is:
"the most uncertain——where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better."

According to John Dufresne, who wrote an article for The Writer back in October of 1992, which got reprinted in September of 2007:
Writing a first draft should be easy because, in a sense, you can't get it wrong. . . . You have nothing to prove in the first draft, nothing to defend, everything to imagine. . . . You write the draft in order to eread what you have written and to determine what you still have to say. . . .
You must have the courage to allow yourself to fail. The first draft is where the beginning writer most often finds himself blocked, to use a conventional, though perhaps misleading, verb.


I highly, heartily recommend that everyone get their mitts on a copy of Dufresne's article, entitled "Write a first draft to FIND YOUR STORY: If you allow for spontaneity and surprise, a story will reveal itself to you in the writing" (yelling bit of the title as in the original). I've not yet read his book, The Lie That Tells a Truth, but I rather suspect that a version of this article (or its information) is contained therein. Particularly since GoogleBooks was able to give me an excerpt that confirms that bit of info.

I know lots of you writer sorts are big fans of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and myriads of fans quote her advice to allow oneself to write a "shitty first draft." What Dufresne does a bit later in the article I've cited and quoted above is tell you how to write a shitty first draft:

Do not try to write beyond what the first draft is meant to accomplish: Do not demand or expect a finished manuscript in one draft. The worst thing you may do in writing the first draft may be to focus on the form or content of the story. Do not even consider technical problems at this early stage. And do not let your critical self sit at your desk with your creative self. The critic will stifle the writer within.

Along those lines, a quote from Jane Austen

". . . why did we wait for any thing?—why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!" Frank Churchill in Emma.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Mokie and Bik by Wendy Orr — a book review

Last night, I read a book which came highly recommended to me by the lovely and talented Linda Urban (aka ). The book? Mokie and Bik by Wendy Orr, illustrated by Mr. Bean. Okay, illustrated by Mr. Jonathan Bean, but you know he must hear it from more than me, right?

Mokie and Bik is a chapter book. As the cleverest among you have already guessed, a chapter book is not a picture book or easy reader, or I'd have said so. And by definition, a chapter book has chapters. Because I've told you there's an illustrator, you have probably guessed that there are illustrations. With the exception of the cover, which has color art, the interior art is pen and ink drawings that are only in black and white.

In somewhat unconventional lay terms, chapter books are the gateway drug into novels. They are a way to ease kids into longer stories once they've gotten their reading legs under them through the use of easy readers. They are often humorous, and they include those illustrations that we just mentioned to offer visual clues that help emerging readers feel confident that they've sorted out the story. Chapter books can include things like easy wordplay, something that many kids love, particularly now that they're feeling they've got a handle on words. And they usually have somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 shortish chapters. The kids notice the 10, not the shortish, and it helps them build confidence.

Popular chapter book characters include Judy Moody, The Magic Treehouse kids, the Boxcar Children, Junie B. Jones, and Clarice Bean. And from now on, I believe they'll include Mokie and Bik.


The actual review:

Mokie and Bik are twins with highly unusual names. One is male, and one is female, and it took me a while to sort out which name went with which kid (as in, I really had no clue for a while, and then when I heard it, I didn't find the selections intuitive, and had a hard time sorting out who was who unless I was assisted by pronouns, which sometimes, I wasn't). Because I loved some other things about the book so much, I am feeling forgiving of that particular pitfall.



Mokie and Bik lived on a boat called Bullfrog. They lived in it, on it, all around it—monkeying up
  ladders
    and
      down
        ropes,
over the wheelhouse and across the cabin floor.
"Twins!" their mother shouted, because the lines of her Art jiggled and jarred
when Mokie and Bik played bumpboats—
  bump thump rumpboats
  up and down the wheelhouse,
  bump thump rumping
  from the steering drawers
  to the bouncy bunk,
  mump clump gumping
  from sleepdog Laddie
  to the potbelly hotter.
"Get out from underfoot!"
So Bik bumped Mokie out the door—
splat!—into nanny Ruby’s bucket as she was sploshing the deck.
"Twins!" shouted Ruby. "Get out from underfoot!"


You have just read the complete text of the first two pages of text in the book, each of which is accompanied by artwork, so in truth, you just covered four pages of the book. And in those four pages, you've learned most of the premise of the story and met most of the characters as well. The mother is kind of like Mrs. Casson from Hilary McKay's stories for older readers: an artist who likes some time to herself, and says things like "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies" when she takes off alone on her botormike. (No, that was not a typo. It's how the word appears in the book.) The twins have a bunch of time to themselves, and they alternate between useful tasks like posing on one foot and carrying fish for Erik the Viking.

Each of the chapters tells a story involving Mokie and Bik and some of the adventures and interactions with the people and animals in their world. The later chapters build on some of the knowledge found in the earlier ones, but in truth, the chapters don't really rely on one another the same way that a novel does. Neither are they separate short stories with common characters. It's more episodic, the same way that Winnie-the-Pooh was, or The Wind in the Willows.

I like the whimsy of the stories in the chapters of this book, which is tempered by enough practicality to keep the book from skidding off into a cesspool of irretrievable cuteness. I adore Orr's use of language, which includes a playfulness that is not found nearly often enough in writing for this age group (in my opinion). Her use of mixed-up phrasing doesn't ruffle my grammatical feathers the way Barbara Park's does in the Junie B. Jones books, since she goes for substituted words ("fisk" instead of fish, which is actually explained at one point) or misplaced words ("parrots" for "pirates", and vice-versa, resulting in this bit of information about the twins' absent father: "'He's a parrot,' said Bik. 'He'll come home with a pirate on his shoulder.'")

I like that when one of the twins ends up in danger partway through the book, the twins solve their own problem, but afterwards, the adults step in to assure things won't go wrong again by making sure the twins learn how to swim. And I like that each of the chapters tells its own episode of a story.

The one thing that I didn't like was that many of the chapters had "slight" endings. Now, on the one hand, this is a chapter book, and not a series of short stories, so the chapters don't require "final endings". In fact, the endings should make you want to turn the page to read the next chapter. But many of the chapter conclusions consisted of single-paragraph (and sometimes single-sentence) summation of the "point" of the chapter, and others kind of just ended, and both events were something that bothered me, although I cannot put my finger on what it was I wanted them to do, aside from "be more satisfying." The end of the book as a whole, however, was extremely satisfying, and so my final conclusion is that I LOVE THIS BOOK. And that it makes me want to play with language in new and different ways as a poet and author.

HEARTILY recommended to young independent readers and as a read-aloud to emerging readers, since parents are sure to enjoy these characters as well. I can't wait for the next Mokie and Bik adventure. How do I know there'll be more? Well, there's a number "1" on the top of the spine. Plus, through the clever use of Henry Holt's online catalogue, I found Mokie and Bik Go to Sea is on the Spring 2008 list. Something to look forward to!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Top Ten Poetry Books for Children, 2007

Yesterday, an interview with renowned fantasy writer Bruce Coville, and today, a top ten list. I really don't think I can keep this level of quality up, folks.

Until recently, I was on the nominating panel for the CYBILS poetry award, which kept me from telling you my top ten favorite poetry books of 2007. (I know I said twelve the other day, but I've edited myself down to a mere ten.) But now that the discussions are over and the finalists are in, I'm embargoed no more. Oh, and I should note before I start that I've not yet read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd and Tina Schart Hyman, nor did I get my hands on Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, illustrated by Bryan Collier, both of which come highly recommended by readers I tend to trust.

Here they are, in alphabetical order by title. Those that made the CYBILS top 7 have an asterisk before the title:

*Animal Poems by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Steve Jenkins. I reviewed this one during National Poetry Month. I loved it then. I loved it as much or more now. The poems are gems. Written in free verse, the poems are about 23 different animals. Some of the animals Worth wrote about, like the Elephant and Jellyfish, are staples in collections of animal poems; others, like the Star-Nosed Mole are decidedly uncommon. In order to keep this post from becoming ridiculously long, I will simply repeat the link to my prior review, which includes sample poems and artwork.

Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems by John Grandits. I loved the sassy main character in this collection of individual concrete poetry. Jessie is a teenage girl who is facing issues at high school, and who has built a wall to protect herself from others. The wall is protection, but it's also prejudice and isolation, as becomes clear through the poems and through the later poem that features the wall once Jessie's perceptions start to change. The prejudice I discuss is not racial, btw, but is the result of Jessie's snap judgments and stereotyping. I really wish I could find a scan of the poem "Bad Hair Day" to share with you, but thus far, no dice. However, you can "Look Inside" the book over at Amazon. For another blog review that loves this one, check out Jules's post from September 21, 2007 over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. This one is perfect for the middle school and high school set, and that's based not just on basic demographics but on specific research by a mother with one middle schooler and one high schooler. For relatability (is that a word?) and content, I'd put this as a must-buy for teen poetry collections.

Do Rabbits Have Christmas? by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies. If I have a quarrel with the words in this book, it's the title selection, which (a) makes it sound like it's only a Christmas title, (b) could be interpreted as being about anthropomorphic animals, which it isn't, and (c) makes it sound like it's for even younger readers than it truly is. The book opens with a poem called "Fall Wind", a song-like poem in rhymed couplets that tells of winter's approach. Other poems discuss snow (what animals and people think of it, how it looks, how it feels, footprints, etc.) and winter, although there are seven poems about Christmas. Final tally? Six winter poems, seven Christmas poems and two winter poems that mention Christmas. There are a couple of stand-out poems in this collection. My particular favorites: "December", "Sparkly Snow", "My Christmas Tree". Here's an excerpt from "My Christmas Tree":

I'll make me a score
of suet balls
to tie to my spruce
when the cold dusk falls.

And I'll hear next day
from the sheltering trees
the Christmas carols
of the chickadees.


Faith & Doubt: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Patrice Vecchione. An anthology for teens that grapples with the questions so many teens face every day: what is faith? is there room for belief? disbelief? if I have doubts, what does that mean? Vecchione has assembled an outstanding collection of poetry from a wide variety of poets, many of whom are familiar to adult readers. There are a lot of heavy-hitters in this book, from Emily Dickinson ("My Worthiness is all my Doubt") to Shakespeare ("Doubt thou the stars are fire" from Hamlet Act 2 scene 2, but you won't get the Hamlet cite in the book, which I find curious) to Whitman, Rumi, Neruda, Rilke, Shelley and more, including modern-day poets such as Marilyn Nelson and Charles Simic. The poems don't all speak about religious faith and doubt, as the introductory note makes clear. Lines attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, entitled "The Doubt of Future Foes" discuss doubt in a political sense, and "The Girl at Five" by Anna Paganelli talks about the loss of faith that comes from sexual abuse as a child, for example. Heavy topics, yes, but these are the sorts of Big Issues and Big Questions that I remember spending hours mulling and discussing with friends and writing really bad poetry about when I was a teen, so I think this one is a must for teen poetry collections.

*Here's A Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar. I first reviewed this book during National Poetry Month, when I said "If you have a toddler or preschooler who needs a poetry book, this is the one to buy. It is a beautiful book in all the right ways, and it's perfect for adults to share with kids." I stand by my earlier words, including the ones about the need for adult assistance - this is a BIG book of poems for little people. One of the things I love best about this collection is the number of "new" poets in it. Yolen and Fusek have selected poems from all over the English-speaking world, and they've insisted on printing the poems exactly as they were originally written, spellings and all. So the word "favor" might be in a poem by an American author, but "favour" from a Brit (as a hypothetical illustration). The illustrations are completely darling, and this book positively screams High Quality Production! at every turn, from paper weight to typsetting to artwork to the excellent assortment of poems, all of which are well-arranged. If you take another look at my review from April, you can see some of the pages and poems to get a better sense for yourself. Or just go buy it.

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color: Poems by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This poetry collection pieces together the story of Miss Prudence Crandall's decision to open and run a school in Crandall, Connecticut in the 1830's. Initially, Miss Crandall taught local (white) schoolchildren, but she allowed "colored" girls to attend as well. The townspeople went from unhappy to full-out ugly, taking actions that ranged from legal actions to ruining the well to hanging a dead cat on the gate outside the school to setting the building on fire. The idealism and enthusiasm of Miss Crandall and some of her students, as well as their dismay and disgust and fear as events turned obscene, are depicted movingly in twenty-four sonnets: twelve by Alexander, twelve by Nelson. The authors' note at the end of the book makes clear that Alexander likes to take a modern approach to the sonnet and stretch the form, whereas Nelson follows a more classical approach. I have to say that overall, I preferred Nelson's poems, which had an additional tautness to them that I can only guess, based on my overall reaction, is the result of her adhering to a more rigid form than Alexander. An excellent addition to middle school and high school libraries and a good supplemental text for any studies of racism.

*Poems in Black & White written and illustrated by Kate Miller. I will have to write a separate review of this book to do it complete justice. Miller decided to create images in black and white, but trust me when I say that the book feels like it's in technicolor. From the baby feet depicted for "First Steps" (which you can read, along with the second poem in the book - and one of my favorites - "Comet", over at this review post from Laura Purdie Salas. Today, I'll share with you "The Cow", although I'm really wishing I had a ppage scan so you could see the thoughtful Holstein on the page and the recreation on the text page of a black patch on the cow's side in which the poem appears in white. The text meanders as well, adding to the poem's appeal, but I'm not going to approximate that here:

The Cow

Because
she wears
a bristly map
of milkweed shite
and midnight black

it seems
as though
she's
strong enough
to carry continents
upon her back

with oceans
in between

and   islands   on her
            knees


Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Istvan Banyai. What's not to love? An excellent poet, wonderful, whimsical illustrations, and oh, by the way, A NEW FORM! And you all know how much I love forms, yes? I reviewed this book back in October, and I love-love-love it now just as I did then. I predict it will win other awards, but unfortunately not a CYBILS award this year - it didn't quite make the cut (sorry, Linda!), but not for lack of appreciation or interest in it. By all means, read my review, but here's the text of "Word Watch" to intrigue you:

Word Watch

Jittery seems a nervous word;
snuggle curls up around itself.
Some words fit their meanings so well:
Abrupt. Airy. And my favorite——

sesquipedalian,
which means: having lots of syllables.


I've met Linda Sue a couple of times now, and in my mind, I can literally hear her voice in this poem, as if she were hear, speaking assuredly into my ear. Linda Sue, you had me at sesquipedalian.

*This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. A confession: When I first began to read this book, I was a bit shruggy about it. Fictional teacher, fictional students, all writing poems to apologize for something they did as part of a fictional class exercise based on William Carlos Williams's poem, "This is Just to Say", sometimes referred to as "the plums". *shrug* The first "kid" apes Williams's form, apologizing to the teachers for eating their jelly doughnuts. *shrug* A girl apologizes to a statue for rubbing its nose. *cute, but shrug* Two boys write poems to one another about dodgeball. *boys! eyerolling shrug* And then a girl apologizes to the teacher for insulting her, and I stopped shrugging and my eyes filled with tears and I couldn't put the book down, even when I was done reading it, because I was too busy hugging it. Not shrugging. Hugging. Tightly. Sidman eases you into the apologies, but once you're into them, you are STUCK IN THIS BOOK. And then.

Then there are the poems of response (and in many cases, forgiveness), that come in the second half of the book, where even the poem written on behalf of Florence P. Scribner's statue contains magic and heart. Just glancing at some of the poems now has caused my eyes to fill again, because they are so strong and warm and wonderful. They are funny and sad and true. They are, in short, miraculous. A must-buy for upper elementary and middle-school kids and teachers. Here's an excerpt for you:

From Apologies:
"How Slow-Hand Lizard Died"

I stole him.
Took him home in my pocket.
Felt the pulse beating
in his soft green neck.
Had no place good to put him.
A shoebox.
He got cold, I think.
Watched his life wink out,
his bright eye turn to mud.
Brought him back,
stiff as an old glove.
Hid him in the bottom of the cage.
Left the money on Mrs. Merz's desk.
(Stole that, too.)

Won't touch the new lizard.
Don't like to touch
money
either.


From Responses:

Ode to Slow-Hand

the way his heart beat in his throad
the way his toes whispered on our hands

los perdonamos

his skin: rough green cloth
the color of new leaves

los perdonamos

his belly: soft as an old balloon
his tongue: lightning's flicker

los perdonamos

the sad way he left us
the sad way you feel

los perdonamos
we forgive you


Crap. Now I'm crying again. While I compose myself, by all means check out Elaine Magliaro's post at Blue Rose Girls from back in March.

*Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephenie Hemphill. You may recall that I first raved about this book back in March when I reviewed it for my blog. And then, I repeated my enthusiastic rave in May as part of Wicked Cool Overlooked Books. I still love it for all the reasons I stated. This book is fun to discuss, by the way, because the reasons I love it — it keeps a bit of distance between the reader and Sylvia Plath and it presents a kaleidoscopic image of her by showing her through the eyes of many different acquaintances as well as by guessing at what was in her own mind (based on her journals, etc.) — are the same reasons that some other folks don't particularly care for it (they found the many attributed voices distracting and/or didn't care for the distance between the reader and the subject (or is she the object?) of the book. Highly recommended for teen readers. This one was, in fact, teen-tested here at my house, and got two thumbs up and some tears from my older daughter. An excellent book for a book report for middle school- and high school-aged kids, and an excellent supplement and research tool for anyone interested in Plath (middle school through adult), on account of the copious bibliography and source notes in the back of the book.

Thursday, January 03, 2008